Dr E. Goosey
Cobalt is a conflict mineral that has been hitting the headlines recently over the rising value and the environmental impacts of mining the material. Cobalt has surged to a 10 year high of £60 per kg. This is a major material security issue for electric vehicle manufactures and the supply of batteries. Cobalt is primarily sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (63%), where recent new mining codes have been drawn into the law. This law sees royalties from cobalt sales being paid on to the government. Not only are manufacturers worried about the rising price of batteries, but are being pressured to assure that the minerals the batteries are made from are sourced in an ethical and environmentally responsible manner. With the increase in price a rise in ‘artisanal mining’ is occurring. Where artisanal mining is primarily conducted by children and currently represents 16% of the Democratic Republic of the Congo supply.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been linked to prior issues such as child labour, conflict minerals and strip mining. Workers in the Congo were recently highlighted in the news for the poor working conditions they endure. Many working by hand (no automated tools), no personal protective equipment, and transport the materials by foot. The work is dangerous due to poor safety requirements, and limited risk assessments. The workforce can also be made up of children who are brought in to join their other family members. In addition to these hazards, the workers risk their health from environmental exposure to dust leading to toxic respiratory issues (lung cancer), plus exposure to natural high radioactivity levels from the mines (uranium resulting in lung cancers, malignant neoplasmers).
Beyond the mines, the communities can be plagued by polluted rivers and drinking waters, which are also used to water their crops leading to further contamination of the soil and food by both water and mining dust. Cobalt can bioaccumulate in plants, and either lead to contamination of livestock. Within these communities miscarriages and infant physical and mental development issues are higher than normal with many resulting in birth defects so severe that the babies are premature or die shortly after birth.
Vehicle manufacturers have a duty to responsibly source the components they use within a vehicle and provide sustainability objectives. The Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) numerous strategies have been put in place to understand their supply chains and opportunities for responsible sourcing. Mineral supply is also tracked by vehicle manufacturers through the iPoint Conflict Minerals Platform (iPCMP), a web-based data management tool.
Manufacturers trying to source responsibly is a prelude to the incoming EU law on conflict minerals. More information on the actions taken by the automotive industry on sustainable sourcing and conflict minerals can be found at www.aiag.org.